The 15th Rocky Shakuhachi Camp, Kyoto

What do you get when you put 80 players of the shakuhachi together in two floors of one building for four days?

Serious Shakuhachi Practice

A hell of a lot of fun, learning and playing.

The Rockies Shakuhachi Summer Camp is usually held near Boulder, Colorado with about 30 attendees. To more than double the size and transplant it to Kyoto was a miracle that David, Cory, Christopher and the rest of the crew pulled off beautifully. It was a time to explore the many styles and schools of shakuhachi. To refine technique and discover new ways to approach the instrument. To hear some inspiring performances and, perhaps, best of all, it was a place to catch up with old friends and make new ones. In fact, when I think of those few days, what first comes to me is a collection of faces of new close friends passing before my eyes. Their smiles and easy closeness.  The happiness of being together.

Kyoto Shakuhachi Camp Members

Of course, there were some difficulties. Like Kundan attempting to sit on the floor for the whole camp. “Hey, I sit for an hour at a time occasionally, I can do this.” He went home the first night, thinking, “I wonder why I’m so tired. Maybe it’s my biorhythm. A good night’s sleep will do me.” Half way through the next day, in a small workshop, the sensei asked if he was ok. “Oh, sure,” he said to the fuzzy image before him. The sensei was no fool. He soon called a break and had the translator bring Kundan a chair. Superman quickly returned to life and was able to gather the strength to play his shak again.

The first evening was devoted to introductions. There was supposed to be other stuff but with 80 individuals…  Here are a couple of the many good stories from that evening:

One man wanted to marry the daughter of a shakuhachi teacher. The father told him, “If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to learn to play the shakuhachi.”  He knew how to test a suitor’s intentions! Twenty-five years later, the son-in-law is still happily married and is teaching the shakuhachi.

Another Japanese man wasn’t interested in traditional Japanese music. He loved jazz. Then, one night he heard a British musician playing jazz on a shakuhachi (there were some eye brows raised at this suggestion) and loved it. The next day, he was walking his dog and saw that his neighbour, who had the same type of dog, was carrying something shaped like a shakuhachi. Not only was it a shakuhachi but the neighbour is a shakuhachi teacher. And, now his teacher.

The vastness of the camp allowed me to make some great ‘mistakes’ . One was when I wandered into the “wrong” workshop and learned a bit of a beautiful piece “Haru no Umi” that is accompanied by koto. Having only learned solo pieces, this was a fun new experience. At another workshop we all learned some folk tunes. During the camp we got to hear improvisation with tabla, as well as, pieces accompanied by koto, shamisen and singer. (The woman who played the koto, shamisen and sang was the amazing Sawako Fukuhara.) There were absolute beginners who got their own classes and gave heart the rest of us to know that we are a living growing tradition. There were people from all over the world including a group from China who included some very good players. The shakuhachi was originally brought from China to Japan and, then, kinda faded away there. Over the last decade, the shakuhachi returned to China. Chinese players have multiplied and there are over one thousand people studying shakuhachi in China. The last evening, was a student/faculty concert that I joined in amongst a large number of my colleagues for one number. One of the highlights was an arrangement by Elliot Kallen of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”.

Then, there was the field trip-

We were all given the opportunity to dress as a Komuso and play in the garden of a Zen Temple. The Komuso were the Zen priest who used the shakuhachi as a meditation tool. When outside the temple, they would wear these basket hats and wander freely all over Japan.

Our one authentically dressed Komuso before the basket.

Many of them were masterless samurai. Eventually, enough rumours of their possibly being spies reached the Shogun that he disbanded them. It is from them that many of the great pieces have been passed down.

To play Komuso in a garden!!!! I jumped at the chance. I was surprised that there were only a dozen of us up for it. We only had six of the basket hats and only one of us had the authentic costume. So, we improvised. Aikido gi, kimono, whatever looked Japanesee.

The “Gate” at the Zen temple.

We, then, filled a van and two taxis for a drive across town to a large Zen temple complex. David had picked a splendid location, the ‘Gate’ of the temple.

As the first group of six got fitted with their baskets, tourists (mostly Japanese) started to gather. There were lots of smiles and pictures.

Group One “Komuso”

Everyone was having a great time. One British couple were getting a discourse on the shakuhachi and told of the upcoming festival.

Then… a young woman came tearing down the hill toward the gate in a very official mode. We let her attempt to find out who was in charge for a little while before directing her to the right person. It transpired that we weren’t allowed to have a “photo session” in the temple grounds without applying for permission and paying a fee. Well, we didn’t think of this as a “photo session”, just a bit of fun. So, we packed up and walked over to a small public roadway within the temple complex and continued our adventure. 86ed from a Zen temple. That was a new one.

We left the tourists behind but there were still some passersby.

Even with the basket hat, they found me.

K & The Geisha

A Model Komuso

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

There were so many great sessions. I’ll just write a little about two of them.

One of the special guests was Junsuke Kawase III. Among other things he told us that twenty- five years ago he gave up smoking. Besides gaining a little weight, he developed asthma. It got so bad that he couldn’t play his shakuhachi. He was inhaling steroids up to six times a day. He asked his doctor if the treatments would cure his asthma and was told, “No, we’re only dealing with the symptoms.” Then, a friend told him of having a successful treatment in Beijing. So, off to Bejing where he started treatment with a Qi Gung doctor. In a very short time, he felt much better and was able to start playing his flute. The Qi Gung doctor said to him, “I didn’t know that they had such a Qi Gung instrument in Japan.” Junsuke went on to tell us some of what he learned about Qi Gung and it’s relation to playing the shakuhachi.

On the last day, the Super Session was with Ichizan Hoshida-sensei. He started by asking us if, when we warmed up in the morning, did we start off blowing the best note we could or just blowing. I was one of the majority who raised their hands to the latter. It was an eye opener to me. Among other things, he talked about starting off with just blowing at 40% strength for four seconds at a time and making each blow the best note that we could blow. I remembered this.

The camp ended at noon and the World Shakuhachi Festival Competition Final Performances began at one o’clock in the same building. There were 24 contestants. It was open to anyone of any age with any level of experience. Most of the contestants were in and around their 20s. What surprised me was the entry of Riley Lee in the competition. If you don’t know, Riley Lee has been playing the shakuhachi since the early seventies. He has performed publicly for many of those years and has produced a large number of excellent cds. To say that I was puzzled is an understatement. My answer was to arrive:

This is how I experienced it. The competitions finalists included some of the finest young up coming players. It was, of course, a highly charged event for them and they would have been listening very carefully to the other players. They each played two pieces. The first was a choice of two pieces that the organisers provided. One with two koto accompanying. It was very melodious. The second with koto  and shamisen contained some very intense sections with the solo being a slower interlude. The second piece played was a choice of the player and only limited by time. Riley was number 22 in order of playing the first piece. Watching the other performers, they would stand or sit beside the accompanists and, facing the audience, would nod when ready and set off into the piece. When Riley came on stage, he adjusted his chair to the side of the accompanists so that he was facing both them and the audience. As he played, he and the koto and shamisen were playing as a unit. Then, when he came to the solo part, it was Riley sitting there alone surrounded by a silent stillness out of which came the exquisite sound of the shakuhachi. When Riley played his other solo piece, that same intense experience occurred. To be present when a shakuhachi master plays at such heights is a rare opportunity.

The morning after the camp, I woke at 5 am. (Not on purpose!) By 5:30, I was in the garden of a small shrine moving through a beautiful slow Yang Chen Fu form. Then, I unpacked my shakuhachi. I stood feeling the energy move up from the earth to mix with the breath in my belly, then, to rise up at 45% strength to emerge as the best note that I could blow. I continued this way maintaining the 45% strength for a length of time until I felt the energy of my breath increase of its own accord and while I stayed relaxed it moved up to emerge as a loud best note I could blow. I had often wondered about the term “Suizen” (blowing zen). That morning, I felt that I had tasted it.

Ten Thousand Words

Beginning Kyoto

Hello Friends,
I hope this finds you in fine fettle.

Sitting in my spacious six tatami room* at the Tomato Guest House. Less than a ten minute walk from Kyoto Station.

Took the overnight bus from Tokyo. Here’s the lovely Willer Express check-in lady at work.

This is a shot with my flash of my ‘cocoon’ on the bus. The actually lighting on the bus was provided by red lights on the ceiling. Very nice as long as you were looking for something big like your seat rather than trying to figure out the controls on the entertainment centre.

The seat reclined way back. That entertainment centre at the front of the space I used to watch a crap Hollywood movie before falling asleep. The ride was very smooth as we were travelling on a main highway the whole time. The main comfort problem was that the length was really for six foot or shorter. I’m six foot two. (Strangely enough, the Indian overnight buses are better arranged. They have enclosed bunks stacked end to end two high that give you a very spacious private place. Very nice for sleeping. Or reading or just looking out the window.)

We arrived at six in the morning at Kyoto Station. As happens so often in this life when one has arrived at an early hour, the guest house reception opens at nine. I hung around a temple for a while,  found the guest house location and happened onto this beautiful mosque.

 

 

The ever faithful body was indicating it’s need for sustenance when I chanced upon this nice ‘Morning Set’ brekkie at a small hotel. Such a lovely presentation for a simple toast, tea and a hard boiled egg. (And, a salad.) Tasted good as well. (Very rare to find bread other than this white air bread in Japan 😦

 

At nine, I dropped off my luggage and headed to a sento (public bath) that is open from seven in the morning. After twenty-six hours on the rode, I was ready. Soap and rinse outside the shallow pool. Then, slip into the water so hot that it melts your bones. Did three rounds of hot, cold. Brushed the trusty teeth. Dragged a comb through my hare and once in my togs, stuck one hundred yen in the slot for ten minutes in the massage chair. I could do this on a regular basis with ease.

The guest house has a 4pm check-in. Six hours and counting.

Midday, I lashed out in a top floor restaurant of Isetan Department Store with a wonderful cold soba set. Yummm.

 

I looked at the tourist map and headed to an indicated garden only a few blocks from Kyoto Station. This turned out to be a successful move.

This beautiful wall greeted me

and was followed by a couple tea houses beside a lilly covered lake.

As well as this stream.

I found myself a secluded spot and pulled out the old bamboo for a pleasant little blow. Had to cut it short as I was being attacked by the local mozzies. These secluded spots have their drawbacks.

Following on from the garden, I continued to pass my time eating green tea ice cream and wandering from one sitting spot to the next waiting for four of the clock to appear. Wandering from here to there wishing that I were in my soon-to-be-bed rather than seeing the sights.

However, I knew that I owed it to my reader to make that extra effort and not be collected by the police for curling up in the middle of the sidewalk as I felt to do a few times. (As much as that might make a colourful episode.)

Four o’clock did arrive. Check in was a success. Sorted a few things and descended into that delicious snooze land. Am now sitting with a belly digesting  homemade muesli ( smuggled into Japan) for dinner. Feeling invigorated and looking forward to tomorrow. Will be seeing some sights and locating one or two of the vegetarian restaurants the I have a list of somewhere. On Monday, we begin the Summer Shakuhachi Camp of the Rockies (transplanted to Kyoto) in a lead up to the World Shakuhachi Festival. Yeah, Team Kundan.

Cheers

* A tatami mat is approximately 0.88 metre by 1.76 metres.

Ro Buki

In May 2007, I began studying shakuhachi with Kaoru Kakizakai Sensei. The practice of blowing with all the holes closed is called Ro Buki. ‘Ro’ is the note being played. It is recommended that you begin each practice with ten minutes of Ro Buki. At our lessons, we begin with a briefer Ro Buki. In one of my last lessons during this last visit , Kaoru said that I had finally ‘gotten’ it. I was immensely pleased. I was back in Oz for one month before I arranged a skype lesson. It occurred on Monday this week. I had lost the form! I could not play ro correctly! We spent half an hour searching. In the end, I could just barely play it correctly. That I had become tense in the situation was a definite drawback. So, that evening and the next day, I searched and found it again. I felt that I had it correct but I wanted to be certain, so, I arranged for a lesson the next day.

I had been successful!!!! You may have heard me shout ‘Yes’ at the end of the lesson.

An interesting side-effect has been that I can now play stronger sounds, longer phrases and practice for longer periods. Big smile.

Just thought I’d let you know.

Changes

My life has been one of many changes. They continue.

We need to step back a bit to get a better perspective of what has led to my present choices.

A current influence has been my ever increasing obsession with myshakuhachi. For four years now, I have been pursuing that state where there is no difference between Kundan and his shakuhachi. At times, recently, I have felt something that might be this illusory state whispering by like a passing feather on the edge of my aura.

The external manifestation of this experience has been a series of continuing jumps in the quality of my playing on these beautifully crafted lengths of bamboo. It has been a snowballing effect that, at times, finds me striding around my rooms exclaiming in difficult to believe joy.

These experiences resulted in my decision, not so long ago, to set aside my Great European Cycling Adventure to better focus on my shakuhachi evolution.  A difficult decision but one that felt right for me. My new plan was announced as the “Pacific Solution”. It involved two visits to Japan for study and travel with a visit to California in the middle. Such a plan led me to a renewed inculcating of the Japanese language into this predominately monolingual brain.

I finally took the bull by the horns and truly learned the two 52 character syllabic alphabets. Having accomplished that task successfully, I was so chuffed that I ventured on into expanding my few readings of the Chinese ideograms that were adopted and adapted by our Japanese ancestors. I am pleased to say that I have made some progress with my present regular recognition of approximately 125 Kanji. Just a few days ago, I added another dozen to the study list in my flash card app.
Concurrent with the advancement of two streams of study, I commenced with the logistical side of my new venture. There was the calculation of travel dates based on seasonal variations and the availability of accommodation in Chichibu as well as my teacher’s presence in his hometown. I found myself with four weeks in the late spring to travel by thumb and couch through western Japan. This was something that I had been promising myself for some years. It was a further stimulus to my language studies.

A departure date of 23 March was set and tickets purchased well in advance. (My good friend Anagara’s 60th Birthday Party was influential on the settling of this date.) I began accumulating equipment and supplies. Lists and gifts and ideas. I visited all my various health care practitioners . Excitement rose as preparations advanced apace. I found a buyer for my car with incredible easy. The time drew nigh. Five weeks shakuhachi intensive in Chichibu here I come. I had postponed a trip earlier in the year and I could hardly wait.

All was in Harmony in Heaven and on Earth.

Then, one evening, I had the urge to tune into the ABC news channel earlier than usual. The helicopters were just beginning the live broadcast of the tsunami as it swept through Sendai. I watched stunned and unaware of how much this would impact my life.

As the tragedy in Northeastern Japan unfolded, my concern was for those affected directly and indirectly grew. My own travel plans were not in doubt. I grew up in LA where earthquakes were a normal part of life. When I lived in Tokyo in the late ’70’s, I would be woken in the night by strong tremblers. I would roll over and go back to sleep. I am a fatalist in relation to earthquakes.

However, as the days passed other factors began to disturb me. The most obvious being the developing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Still, my concern focused on the stress being experienced by the people and infrastructure of the Sendai and Tokyo regions. I was scheduled to fly into Tokyo in a weeks time. No one could say what would happen in that time. I was hoping for the best but I decided that I did not feel right to add to the strain being experienced in the Tokyo region. I made plans instead to go to Kyoto to wait until I felt it was right to be travel to Chichibu. I would still be in Japan and I had planned to to visit Kyoto and Nara during this visit. I would just change my schedule in this way and wait there as things resolved.

On Thursday, I visited a close friend and told him of my change of plans. My friend  replied, “I understand how difficult it is for you to change you plans to visit Japan. However, all of the people of Japan are going through a time of trauma, grieving and incredible uncertainty. They need to sort this out themselves. You would be intruding if you went there now. It wouldn’t be  right for you to go to Japan now.”

The truth of  my friend’s words struck home. When I left his house, I went directly to my travel agent and began arrangements to cancel my existing ticket and book a flight direct from Australia to California. When I got home, I rang my teacher, Kaoru, and told him of my decision. I felt unable to adequately explain myself. I was in emotional turmoil. I did not feel any sense of relief that I have avoided any possible danger. I feel a deep sadness for the situation of the people of Japan that has caused me to reach my decision. I let go as the sadness poured through me. I came to peace with it.

The possibility of spending time with my family in California is very welcome. My thoughts and heart are constantly with Japan as I continue on my journey.

Let the light shine from our hearts to all parts of this world.

Love, Kundan

The Itinerary

Here’s my itinerary so far:

I will be leaving the fair shores of Oz on 23 March en route to Japan. For five weeks, I will be enjoying another shakuhachi intensive in Chichibu. I will then sling a pack on my back to hitch-hike for a further four weeks. I intend at that time to visit Kyoto, Hiroshima and Kyushu. I will be experiencing the Couch Surfing network along the way. Much unknown involved.

The first of June will find me once again boarding Singapore Air for a flight to California. Visiting family and doing short trips on the west coast for the summer. It looks as if my sister Mary and I will be heading up into the Northwest together as she had already planned such a trip toward the end of June. My birthplace of Billings, Montana may be graced by my presence once again.

31st of August finds me leaving LAX to return to Japan. Right now, it looks like a couple weeks of more travelling around Japan by thumb. Heading north this time. Then, six weeks of shakuhachi before returning to the land down under.

There is enough space in my plans for a good deal of unexpected adventure!

Looks Like The Pacific Solution

Tossed it around some more and, barring unforeseen circumstances, I will give Europe a miss this year. It was a great plan. Still is! However, it would be hampered by my attempts to put in the amount of shakuhachi practice that I am now doing and want to continue for the immediate future. I’m at a stage in my learning/playing where I feel the need to be more stable. The beauty of the Europe Cycling Plan is the movement and exploration.

So, I have decided to do a Brisbane- Tokyo- LAX- Tokyo- Brisbane trip. I will do some travelling; hitching in Japan, train trips in the US, however, these will be of shorter duration with the northern summer mostly spent at my brother or sister’s.

That’s how it’s looking. I just need to settle on the dates.